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Publisher's Summary

Napoleon's Buttons is the fascinating account of 17 groups of molecules that have greatly influenced the course of history. These molecules provided the impetus for early exploration and made possible the voyages of discovery that ensued. The molecules resulted in grand feats of engineering and spurred advances in medicine and law; they determined what we now eat, drink, and wear. A change as small as the position of an atom can lead to enormous alterations in the properties of a substance - which, in turn, can result in great historical shifts.

With lively prose and an eye for colorful and unusual details, Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson offer a novel way to understand the shaping of civilization and the workings of our contemporary world.

©2003 Micron Geological Ltd and Jay Burreson (P)2011 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Well-conceived, well-done popular science." (Booklist)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • A.J.
  • Mount Pocono, PA, United States
  • 03-09-12

Wish one of the authors would have read this book

Napoleon's Buttons is a well written book for a popular audience about the influence of organic chemistry and organic compounds on human history -- how rare is that! Like other books with similar content (e.g. The Disappearing Spoon), this book is structured to allow the listener stop and easily pick it up the flow later -- a good feature for commuters like me.

Regrettably, Laural Merlington's mispronunciation of countless chemical and other scientific terms really detracted from what was overall a fine performance. Example: She seemed to have a little trouble with her "a" sounds; she pronounced lactase "LACT ahhhz" -- fine if you're speaking French, but in English we use a long "a" as in "ace" -- and estradiol "es TRAY deeyol" -- I had to hear this word at least three times before I figured out what she was saying. (People familiar with this steroid say it "es trah DYE ol" -- because it is an estrogen steroid with two -OH groups on the steroid (i.e. a diol)). Another example: At one point during the discussion of antibiotics, she pronounced para-aminobenzoic acid "p amnio benzoic acid" at least six times in two consecutive paragraphs, even though she had said it correctly at a previous point. The upshot of all this criticism is that either the narrator or one of the other folks in the studio should have been a person with a scientific background, who would have known (and more important, would have cared) how to pronounce these words. It would have been ideal if one of the authors had narrated.

My one critique directed at the text itself is that the lengthy, preambular history of persecution of alleged witches in Chapter 12, on alkaloids, created an unnecessary delay on the way to the real content of this chapter: the historical connections to the compounds and their sources. This chapter would have stood up well on its own without the background information.

33 of 34 people found this review helpful

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Goog story poorly performed

I had to cringe at the all too frequent mispronunciations. one would think that a narrator would seek guidance from someone who is familiar with this language before producing this recording. Using the propper language in chemistry is vitally important to understanding structure. This was a big failure on the part of the narrator.

The story was well written and had a good thesis.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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History gone lite, and annoying

Any additional comments?

This book reads as if it were written by an undergraduate using Wikipedia and Google. sIt is heavy on facts (often trivia) and light on conceptual knowledge. Occasional errors of fact contribute to the feeling that the authors often lack a deeper understanding of the material they present. <br/> <br/>There are too many speculative uses of "may have" and "could have" for my taste. The underlying conceit, that certain chemicals changed history, is a great overreach, even in the opening discussion of the tin buttons of Napoleon's army. <br/><br/>The following passage from the chapter on nitrogen-based explosives speaks for itself:<br/>"In 218 B.C., the Carthaginian general Hannibal made his way through the Alps with his vast army and his forty elephants for an assault on the heart of the Roman Empire. He used the standard but extremely slow road-building method of the day: rock obstacles were heated by bonfires, then doused with cold water to break them apart. Had Hannibal possessed explosives, a rapid passage through the Alps might have allowed him an eventual victory at Rome, and the fate of the whole western Mediterranean would have been very different."<br/><br/>I counted eight grating mispronunciations of biologic and chemical terms. Otherwise the reader gives an acceptable performance. <br/><br/>I was given a hard copy of this book by a friend and had to read it. It's the first audio-book that I've listened to at 1.5X speed.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Lisa
  • Elgin, IL, United States
  • 06-24-16

Google Can Pronounce it Better

As a chemistry teacher, I was intrigued by the subject of the book. I was, however, disappointed by the reality. Many of the examples of how molecules changed history were entirely supposition. I much preferred The Disappearing Spoon and Periodic Tales for their actual history of chemicals and discovery.

And the pronunciation!!!! I almost never write a review but felt compelled to do so. Does no one with a science background oversee the production of an audiobook about science. Arrhenius' name was the most glaring mispronunciation. I can at least understand how the chemical compounds might be difficult, but Google will tell you how to pronounce Arrhenius. Just inexcusable.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Interesting story terrible narration

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Many people who dont know anything about chemistry

What did you like best about this story?

The subjects were well chosen -- could have been more inorganic and biochemistry

How did the narrator detract from the book?

There were scores of mispronunciation of simple chemical words. It was therefore difficult to follow. She should have consulted any student who had sophomore organic chemistry.

Any additional comments?

I have a PhD in chemistry

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent book, terrible narration

Would you try another book from Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson and/or Laural Merlington?

The first time a term was read, it would usually be done correctly, but after that it would nearly always be pronounced incorrectly. Not to mention the number of terms that were never pronounced correctly at all. Really should have had one of the authors read, or at least be there during the recording, since no organic chemist that I know of would have let that number of glaring mistakes slide.

How could the performance have been better?

Narration clearly done by someone without a science background who had no idea how to pronounce more than half of the technical terms in the text.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Best Chemistry popular book

I have listened to two other great chemistry books (The Disappearing Spoon and uncle Tungsten), and this one is the best. The Disappearing Spoon is the most complete, with more elements and much more about the creation of the Periodical Table, and Uncle Tungsten is much more personal and anecdotal. But Napoleon's Button had the greatest descriptions and historical context to the chosen molecules. The importance of each molecule explained and the role it played in human history is clear and very well explained.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Disappointed

I was looking forward to this book and hoping it to be as informative and entertaining as The Disappering Spoon, but was disappointed. Instead of a history of molecules it was more a politcal commentary about the ramifications of slavery. I'm sorry I wasted my credit on it.

11 of 17 people found this review helpful

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Not what I expected

Still a very interesting read. I am better for it. Highly recommend to fill in what really matters in history. It ain't what they tell you. It is much more interesting.

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great book

I read this book back in college and enjoyed going back to it. the chemistry language was hard to follow for anyone else listening but was fine for anyone with some organic chemistry background